Saturday, September 26, 2020

Clear and present danger

For an idea of how close Botswana is to the proliferation of nuclear waste, listen to Stephen Williams explaining why it has not happened yet: “Thank God for that.”

The Deputy Director in the Department of Research Science and Technology says so far, there has been “no survey carried out or any statistical data collected to show that there is a proliferation of nuclear waste in the country. “

For the first time, however, the government enclave is talking about nuclear waste proliferation and Botswana in the same breath. Something is stirring.
In fact, for one brief moment this week, Williams became the face of Botswana’s desperation against the threat of nuclear radioactivity. It happened while he was sitting behind his computer on Friday afternoon thumbing away a response to a Sunday Standard questionnaire: “There is definitely a threat of contamination by radioactivity and mechanisms must be in place to effectively deal with such situation without any loss of life or damage to the environment.”

When Williams fields questions about the threat of nuclear waste proliferation in Botswana, you don’t hear sanitized officialese or a false sense of security. He makes no effort at spinning. He seems to prefer telling it like it is, and says things like, “when dealing with existing and proven technology, there is no room for imagining things. It is a fact that exposure to Grays or more will result in death; that public exposure must not exceed 1 milli-Sievert per year; that an occupationally exposed worker must not exceed an effective dose of 50 milli-Sievert in a single year. There is no imagination or guess work there.”

There is even a ring of desperation and urgency to his tone when he talks about the need for effective regulation. “It is important that appropriately qualified staff is identified without delay to take up such responsibilities.”

Hardly surprising, Williams says, “Radioactive waste poses a real danger to the public and the environment when it is not properly managed. Contact with radioactive waste without adequate knowledge can lead to radiation related injuries which can range, depending on the severity of the exposure, from skin burns to death.” This is no idle talk.

The list of common radiation sources in Botswana reads like scientific names from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which killed tens of people in the Ukraine. Common radioactive sources used in Botswana include Cesium 137, which results in increased risk of cancer. If exposures are very high, serious burns and even death can result. One example of such high exposure situations would be the mishandling of strong industrial Cesium 137 source. It can also be found in nuclear reactor waste and accidental releases such as the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine.

Then there is Cobalt 60, which is also known to cause cancer. Exposure to gamma radiation from Cobalt 60 results in increased risk of cancer. Botswana also has a lot of Iodine 131. Radioactive Iodine can be inhaled as a gas or ingested in food.

If a family member has been treated with Iodine 131, you may have increased exposure to it through body fluids. Iodine 131 can cause nodules or cancer of the thyroid. The other common radioactive source in the country is Americium ÔÇô Beryllium 241 (AM 241), a man made metal produced from Plutonium. Am-241 found in the environment is a result of nuclear weapons testing. As a dust or fine powder, AM ÔÇô 241 can cause certain cancers. When swallowed, absorbed through a wound or inhaled it can stay in the body for decades. It concentrates in the bones, liver, and muscles exposing these organs to alpha particles.

Almost everyone in Botswana is exposed to the threat. Staff and patients at public and private medical facilities in which radiology departments or units exist; local farmers and Ministry of Agriculture officials involved in research techniques that use nuclear technology such as sterile insect technique, artificial insemination, plant mutation and animal breeding workers in mining companies where radiation sources are used extensively for exploration and process control, University of Botswana students and lecturers who use radiation sources for research, Kgalagadi Breweries staff who use radioactive sources for a variety of applications and construction workers who use sealed sources for measuring, amongst other things, soil moisture during road construction.

Even countries that used to sing praises about how Botswana has escaped the curse of development are now taking another look at the country and turning up their noses.

A number of member countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are now refusing to do business with Botswana because although the country has been using nuclear technology for sometime, it is not regulated.

The IAEA is a United Nations agency that guards against nuclear proliferation and the adverse effects of radiological incidents. The IAEA led the nuclear weapons inspection in Iraq in the early 1990s.
In one case, a Botswana company missed production targets because a member state of IAEA in Europe would not send the Americium-Beryllium 241 source unless authority had been obtained from the regulatory body.

Botswana has for the past four months been in a rush to put together a regulatory body to protect the country from nuclear radioactivity. In its last sitting, Parliament passed the Radiation Protection Bill, 2006. The Radiation Protection Act provides for the safe use of atomic energy and nuclear technology in Botswana.

The Act also provides for the setting up of a Radiation Protection Board that will administer the safe use of atomic energy and nuclear technology.

The Radiation Protection Inspectorate will implement the decisions of the board
Department of Research Science and Technology officials are putting finishing touches to their strategy to take nuclear technology awareness to the people. A number of seminars and workshops will be held during 2007 where information will be provided to key representatives from various organizations so that they can pass it on. Posters are also being passed out to the public and information campaigns are to be intensified during the year through newspapers, radio stations and television to reach out to the general public. The department is also assessing the extent of use and identifying areas of concern in relation to compliance with international safety standards governing the use of nuclear technology.

There is a sense, however, that Williams feels that the government’s reaction is slow and does not go far enough: “There are specialist areas not currently provided for in the Department of Research Science and Technology. Furthermore, extensive consultations have indicated that the Radiation Protection Inspectorate cannot operate effectively under DRST because the latter is also a user of nuclear technology and will need to be regulated as well,” said Williams. “It is important that appropriately qualified staff to take up such responsibilities is identified without delay.”

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